I feel guilty that I flaked out on a volunteer job

A reader writes:

My first year of college, I signed up to volunteer as a hotline operator at my local rape crisis center. I went through the required online training, the in-person training, and applied/paid for all of my required clearances. However, once I actually started volunteering, I realized that, due to my own experiences, counseling people in crisis caused me a massive amount of anxiety; I would go over every phone conversation in my head, wondering if I had said something to make the caller’s situation worse. I told the volunteer coordinator how the work was affecting me, and she told me that there were other tasks I could do. Unfortunately, these tasks required that I take a bus to the crisis center at night, and the travel took up so much time that my grades started to drop. I talked to the volunteer coordinator (who was, once again, incredibly understanding), and because there was nothing else I could do as a volunteer, communication stopped between us.

It’s been three years of on-and-off volunteering with the crisis center, and I’m not really sure what to do at this point. Last month, the volunteer coordinator emailed me, saying that my clearances needed to be updated, and that, if I didn’t reply to this email, she would take me off of the volunteer mailing list. I had a moment of idealism where I imagined finally stepping up and volunteering on a consistent basis, and I told her that I was interested in continuing my volunteer work, and that I would email her with my clearances. Soon after I replied, I realized that my senior year class schedule and my own anxiety surrounding the work required at the crisis center would make volunteering very difficult.

I feel idiotic and irresponsible; I’ve never shirked my responsibilities like this before. It’s been two months since I replied to the volunteer coordinator’s email, and I still haven’t emailed her my clearances. I imagine that she’s assumed I won’t be volunteering, but I don’t just want to leave her with no further communication. I’m not sure if I should email her and explain how sorry I am for wasting her time, and how, despite her understanding, I won’t be able to continue volunteering; I’m not sure if I should email her and explain how sorry I am for wasting her time, and that I plan to step up and be a better volunteer. I feel stupid for even suggesting the second option, but I hate the thought of not being able to use this experience on my resume (because I can’t imagine that any reference from the crisis center would help me in any way). How should I deal with what an awful volunteer I’ve been, and deal with my situation considerately and responsibly? I hate the thought that my volunteer work has been more harmful than helpful to this organization.

I don’t know if this will make you feel better or depress you further, but this is sooooooo common.

Organizations that work with volunteers are very, very used to it. It’s pretty much par for the course when you’re working with volunteers. When I worked with volunteers, I’d always assume that we’d get a maximum of 50% participation from the people who signed up. It’s just a normal thing that happens, and I suspect it’s especially true with emotionally difficult work.

So, the volunteer coordinator gets it. She’s not sitting there wondering why you never got back to her, and she’s almost certainly not outraged or indignant. She’s used to it — and probably not in a world-weary “people suck so badly” kind of way, but in a “people have good intentions that for various reasons they don’t always follow through on” way. It’s just how volunteer work goes.

I do think that you’d feel better if you emailed her and apologized, because this is clearly weighing on you. So few people in your shoes bother to say “Hey, I messed this up and I’m sorry, and here’s why” so if you do that, she’d probably really appreciate it.

But it doesn’t sound like a good idea to try volunteering there again unless something has really changed for you and you have a reason to be confident that this time will be different. I don’t mean that in a “you’ve lost your chance, slacker!” way — I mean that it just didn’t seem like the right match, at least for right now, and it’s okay to accept that. And there are other things that you can do to support their work — donate if you can afford it (or if not now, then in the future), attend their fundraisers and events if they have them, talk about their work with other people, and so forth. There are lots of ways to help organizations that are doing important work other than volunteering for them.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. B*

    I volunteered at a lot of places once or twice until I could find the right one to stick with. Your heart is in a good place so perhaps keep trying with other types of organizations where it is not this type of crisis mode. Shelters are always on the lookout for volunteers, museums where you can interact with people (though be prepared as that is many hours of preparation – trust me on this one), cook at a shelter, help at hospital reception, read to someone in the library, etc. There are so many worthwhile causes out there, do a google search for your area and I am sure you will find something. It may just take a bit until you say, yup this is what I can stick with and feel good about.

    1. TootsNYC*

      It’s also OK to say, “I like the idea of volunteering, but I’m not really able to commit to anything–either now, or maybe ever.”

      1. annonymouse*

        As much as you want to volunteer you need to be realistic:
        1) your schedule doesn’t allow you to
        2) doing the calls weighs more heavily on your own mental health than it should
        3) doing the admin work impacts on your school work.

        All in all it doesn’t sound like a good match for you, at least at the moment AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT.

        The worse thing you can do is make promises to volunteer because you feel bad when all of the above are still true. Because the same thing will happen again.

        You need to accept that doing this particular volunteer work now is not good for you but you’d be more than happy to if things change and let the coordinator know.

        This doesn’t make you a bad person. This makes you human.

  2. schuylersister*

    I sympathize with you so much, OP. I, too, have flaked on (more than one) volunteer gig. Each time I’ve felt extremely guilty. Sometimes I’ve tried to recommit myself, imagining a new, more productive life where I step up and volunteer consistently…but it fails.

    Just know you’re not alone. And that’s a high stress volunteer gig!

  3. Jack the Treacle Eater*

    Speaking as someone who volunteers, you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. The whole tone of your email says you were conscientious and did what you could. You did far, far more than many do, and were upfront and honest about the problems volnuteering was giving you. Given these issues – the anxiety, the effect on your schooling – you have more than gone the extra mile and done more than anyone could want of you.

    The only thing you’ve not done is respond to the clearance renewal call. That is really very, very minor and as Alison says, just one of those things in the volunteering world. If you feel badly about it – and the fact you feel badly speaks volumes about your conscientious attitude – by all means email, but simply say that you’re sorry for not responding sooner, but that you will be unable to commit this year because of other, unavoidable calls on your time. Don’t say you messed up, because you haven’t. Don’t beat yourself up about it, because you have no need to. Don’t feel you’ve harmed the organisation, because you haven’t – you’ve given what you could. You should absolutely feel proud of yourself for doing what you have, because there are plenty out there who haven’t done a fraction of what you’ve done.

    1. Atlantic Toast Conference*

      Wait, but… he DID respond to the clearance call, right? “I told her that I was interested in continuing my volunteer work, and that I would email her with my clearances. Soon after I replied…” I do think he needs to let the coordinator knows he changed his mind and won’t be continuing to volunteer, but I agree that he shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Our OP responded at first, but then didn’t REALLY respond, bcs they didn’t send the clearances after all.

        But yes, our OP doesn’t need to feel guilty; just say, “After all, I won’t be able to do this. Sorry!” And leave it at that.

      2. Jack the Treacle Eater*

        Yes – I think there’s more to responding than just saying ‘yes, I’ll respond’ – you have to do what is required of you. In this case there’s a tension between the OP wanting to commit (and feeling guilty about not doing) and the reality, which is that this volunteer role takes too much out of them to actually do. I guess it’s that dilemma which has stopped the OP completing; but as we all agree, there is just no need to feel guilty about it; it’s just a matter of being realistic and honest (with yourself as well as the co-ordinator) about practicalities.

    2. Joseph*

      “You did far, far more than many do, and were upfront and honest about the problems volnuteering was giving you.”

      Speaking as someone who’s coordinated volunteers before, I can tell you this: The mere fact you responded and said you wouldn’t be able to assist is already (a) far more than most people do and (b) good enough. I’d rather hear that you can’t be of help because of XYZ than you disappear without warning and/or say you’ll help but then leave us high and dry.

    3. myswtghst*

      “simply say that you’re sorry for not responding sooner, but that you will be unable to commit this year because of other, unavoidable calls on your time.”

      Exactly this. As Alison mentioned, unless your circumstances have changed drastically, don’t say you’re going to volunteer. You have good intentions, but are creating a cycle of committing to something because you feel you should, then being stressed when you aren’t able to follow through. I know because I do the same thing, and realizing I don’t have to say yes to everything is really helping my mental health and my stress levels lately. There is no harm in being honest that you do not have the time / resources available now, and doing so puts you in a better position if your circumstances do change in the future.

  4. Francis J. Dillon*

    I’m gonna be real with you, I did this exact same thing. I really wanted to volunteer at a young women’s homeless shelter near my city. I attended applied, attended orientation, and then just never took the next steps. I realized it was too much. Couldn’t handle it.

    I feel bad I guess, because I still wanted to volunteer somewhere. Then I found that the cat shelter a block away from my house was looking for volunteers. It was perfect. People don’t really talk about it, but volunteering takes ENERGY. You need to dedicate a good portion of your day/week to something and receive (usually) nothing tangible in return. Doing things because it “feels good” is easy to start, but to do that week after week can become draining.

    My advice? Wait until you graduate, or when you feel you really, really, have enough time. Even doing it one day a week can be tiring. Volunteers do it because it’s convenient to them. Otherwise it’d be a job. ;)

    1. JessaB*

      It also takes mental fortitude. There’s a reason why crisis centres and hotlines often have help available for their volunteers/workers. Working with people in crisis (abuse victims, rape victims, mentally ill persons, suicide hotlines, etc.) can take a very large physical/psychological toll on a person. Good agencies know this. And they know that not every person even if they think they can, is actually able to once they go in and DO it. Dealing in crisis day in and day out is not something every person is able to do and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you want to.

  5. gnarlington*

    Agreed with Alison’s advice here. She is SO used to this, OP. We have a saying in our office that’s something like, “If 10 people say they’re going to show up, if they swear that they absolutely, positively, 100 percent are going to make it—only five will show.” It’s just the nature of these things. And it’s fine. She’s not judging you; she gets it. I would go ahead and send the note if it’ll help you (and she most likely will appreciate it). Don’t feel like you have to be overly apologetic. And then I would just move on from this and deem that it just wasn’t the right opportunity for you given the logistics and the type of work it was. Which is totally fine.

    1. Michele H.*

      Yes! The 50 percent rule! That is so true! If you want 25 people to come to an event, get 50 to say yes! If you need 50 to say yes, send out 100 invitations. If you want to send out 100 invitations, then get a mailing list of 200. If you need a mailing list of 200, then you need 400 people who have ever expressed interest in what your organization does. If you need 400 interested people, then you need to canvass 800 individuals. That can be daunting, of course, but recruiting volunteers is ongoing and eternal!

      The second no-fail rule? If you feed them, they will come.

      1. Honeybee*

        I work in the video game industry, and my job requires volunteers to come in to playtest products. We give them a gratuity (free video games!) for participating, and they know that they are trying a cool new game – maybe one that isn’t even out yet, before everyone else gets to – that they are really interested in. Even then, we often have to double-book our sessions to ensure that we get at least one person to show up. I’m running a study this week that we didn’t double-book and half our participants didn’t show up.

  6. mskyle*

    I have been a coordinator of volunteers and also a flaky volunteer.

    I actually feel *less* bad about flaking on volunteering now than I did before I worked with volunteers, because I know how it feels when a volunteer flakes out on you, and it’s really not the end of the world! Like, obviously it’s not ideal, but it’s just part of the deal when you’re working with volunteers.

    I would never sign up for a volunteer commitment with the intention of quitting/flaking out, and I try to be realistic about how good a match a commitment will be for me, but I know that if I find I have to withdraw it’s OK, and the organization will survive without me.

    1. JessaB*

      And you never know if you can do it until you attempt it. You can research forever, and talk to the coordinator but until you actually do it, you have no idea if it’s something you can handle. Whether it’s a crisis centre or building a Habitat house (hey being out in the weather learning to build something is NOT easy either.)

    2. Marina*

      This. I have been both a volunteer coordinator and a flaky volunteer as well. I would 100% rather have a volunteer who has severe anxiety about the work flake out than try and push themselves to come back to their own detriment. It’d be nice of you to send an email saying you won’t be able to volunteer at this time, so that she doesn’t wonder whether you’re waiting for her to get in touch, but it is not at all required. Please be gentle with yourself–you did a wonderful thing by trying out volunteering there, and it not being the right fit doesn’t mean anything bad about you.

  7. Bernard14*

    As a fellow volunteer coordinator in a very similar field, I would like to echo everything Alison said. She is spot on! We are very used to people not being able to hold their volunteer commitments with us, and that is totally ok. Things change-jobs, family situations, class schedules, etc. Volunteer coordinators understand and respect that volunteers might be with an organization only for a few weeks, or for many many years. Not every volunteer role is a good fit, so please give yourself permission to move on from this commitment. In the end, it will be a zillion times better for your coordinator to know that you’ve decided to stop volunteering then to leave him/her unsure and frustrated about your status with the organization. Best of luck to you!

  8. Sibley*

    Find an organization where you can help them in a way that is also positive for you. A successful volunteering relationship will result in both sides being improved in some way. Personally, I get de-stressed. I volunteer at an animal shelter. I clean, then play with cats. I don’t regularly interact with the public, or with dogs.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Same here. I volunteer with a cat rescue. Cleaning the main foster in-take, playing with the cats, transporting to/from adoptions, and helping set up/break down the semi-annual tag sales are my main thing. I tried working adoption events, and it just wasn’t for me.

    2. Kay*

      Yes – I came here to say this. I interview and hire volunteers as part of my job, and it’s really really important to me that it’s a good fit for both sides – almost even more so than a regular job. Each of the volunteer jobs I recruit for is very different and I want people to be happy in what they’re doing! I would be totally, completely ok with someone saying “this isn’t a good fit for me after all.”

      (As Alison says: also totally normal to have people vanish. I shrug and move on.)

    3. many bells down*

      I volunteer at a museum because I *love* public speaking (I know, I’m a weirdo). Today I had this kid who was super into one of my talks and asked a bunch of questions and I had a great day.

  9. Rowan*

    “It’s been three years of on-and-off volunteering with the crisis center”

    That is not my definition of flaking! You’ve had an ongoing commitment to this center in which you did what you could within your available time. And at this point, you’ve realized that you won’t have any available time during your senior year. If you’d disappeared in your first year after getting the training and the clearances, that might have been “flaking” (although as Alison pointed out, they probably count on only getting a fraction of the people who trained actually coming in), but after three years, this is not flaking.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Absolutely! OP, you might feel like you’ve been flaking because you didn’t do everything the center asked for volunteers to do – e.g. you might be thinking “but they need volunteers every Saturday and I only actually went 12 Saturdays” – but just because send out loads of calls for volunteers it doesn’t mean they expect people to all be able to volunteer that much. Would they like it if you were able to do ever Saturday and coordinate their fundraising brunch and mentor new trainees and redesign their website? Well, yeah, that would be pretty awesome for them – but it doesn’t mean that they think you’re some kind of slacker because you weren’t able to put in that commitment. You’re a volunteer, not a contracted employee.

  10. E.R*

    The only time I’ve been able to keep a volunteering commitment is during an election, for a candidate in the election. I think having a clear goal (to get them elected!) and an end date helps. I’m still embarassed about the time I was elected to a committee in my first year of college. It was a volunteer position that had regular meetings, and because of class and family things, I missed almost all of them. And I got impeached!

    I try to really consider whether I can contribute meaningfully, both with skills and time, to a volunteer position and not get caught up just in the great work the org is doing. There are so many good volunteer opportunities in general, but so few that are a truly good fit.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Many people are able to do sprints, where they volunteer for a few days at a particular event. Not many people can make an on-going weekly/monthly commitment that they keep year after year.

  11. B-Bam*

    I work in social services non-profit and what you described with the phone counseling is very common. Your own trauma/past can be triggered when you’re trying to help even though it is your own experiences that are making you so dedicated to the cause. It happens in people who do the work for a living as well and stress in your own life can make it even worse. Don’t beat yourself up about it and as Alison suggested, reach out to the coordinator to let her know you’re not continuing. I’d recommend letting her know that for personal reasons you won’t be continuing, that you need to focus in your last year of school but also end with a note on what you’ve enjoyed and gotten out of working with the organization.

  12. newlyhr*

    PLEASE PLEASE listen to your gut and just recognize that this is not a good fit. I was a volunteer coordinator (as a volunteer!) and we understand and expect that people can have good intentions but other things–logistics, emotions, etc— can make it hard. You might feel better if you sent the coordinator an email and let her know that you love and support what they do but unfortunately volunteering for them is not a good fit for you. You don’t have to do that, but it might make you feel like you closed the loop.

    Keep that volunteer heart and find something that works better for you. Volunteering in the right place can do wonders for your spirit and give you a strong sense of purpose. If your volunteer work isn’t doing that, then you are not in the right volunteer role.

  13. KR*

    What a kind response. I had to walk away from an organization I frequently volunteered with for close to 10 years. I was going through college and working full time, the social nature of the organization agitated my anxiety, the specific chapter of the organization was changing leadership in a direction I didn’t like, and my political values were shifting – while I supported the mission of the organization, the majority of the members were so right wing I felt I couldn’t agree with them enough to work with them. It was a hard choice to let go because I had many friends in the organization who had known me since I was young and I thought they would see it as a betrayal or that I didn’t care, but I just had to accept that my life was going in a different direction and that there would be other volunteer opportunities and other ways to show my support to this cause. It’s hard to let go when you want to help so much but can’t, but it’s okay.

  14. sympathy*

    Been there, done that, only I feel like mine was worse? I was a Big Sister through BBBS and had a lot of personal problems happen at once – work increased, my anxiety was ruling my life, I got engaged – I was basically a ball of nervous energy all the time and crashed each night. My “little” also got very involved with school and activities, kept having to cancel our dates, and eventually I stopped setting them up. Then my fiance and I suddenly moved cross-country. I never told anyone at BBBS and I STILL feel guilty about it, years later (but I also never heard from them, so maybe my “little” dropped out?).

    Basically I’m sure I’m blackballed from BBBS and I’m normally a super committed, dedicated person. Heck, I volunteer 3 times a month at a soup kitchen and I’ve been volunteering at the same summer camp for people with disabilities for over 10 years!

    1. MoinMoin*

      I had a very similar ending to my BBBS experience, except that it was more challenges with the parent than the little’s busy schedule. A lot of times I’d go to pick her up and nobody was home, or an emergency would crop up and she’d tell me to take all the kids (little, big brother, toddler sisters). Once I went to pick her up and was informed after the date I’d need to drop her off at a birthday party and could I pick up a gift on the way? I’m now better at standing up for myself and defining what is and isn’t appropriate in an arrangement like this, but at 19 I had no idea how to handle it and over time the dates became less frequent and I wouldn’t be able to get a hold of anyone until they just dropped off and I moved shortly afterwards. I did formally end things with BBBS and right before moving on her birthday I brought cupcakes and left them in her classroom but I didn’t get to see my little to say goodbye and it still kills me.

  15. Mustache Cat*

    Hey there friend! I am in the exact same boat as you. I’ve been a longtime rape crisis hotline volunteer, but this summer I just realized that I could not handle it anymore. There was no sudden moment where it struck me; the emotional fatigue simply crept up over time. So you see, it can truly happen to anyone, and I don’t even have any personal experiences of that kind like you have.

    I think it’s awesome that you kept trying to volunteer! Try to put away your guilt. I know (and you know, if you received some of the same training that I have) that simply telling people not to feel a certain way doesn’t work. But it isn’t fair to blame yourself. Truly. You did the right thing by relinquishing those particular responsibilities: you can hardly have served your callers to the best of your ability if you had been emotionally compromised. And I can tell by your reaction that for you it was a really hard decision to make, but you made the smart, correct, and moral choice.

    OP, take some time for yourself. You know the drill: self-care, focus on your goals and future, do what makes you happy. If you want to give back, do some fundraising! You have a great story–i.e., I was personally involved with this organization for a number of years, and what they do is incredible–but you’re not obliged to put your mental health at risk, nor would they want you to. Good luck!

    1. Libervermis*

      I’ve been a crisis center volunteer for about three years now, but I took the last six months off because of how busy the rest of my life got. That’s totally okay. Maybe at some point you’ll be able to go back to this particular volunteer opportunity at some point in the future, maybe you’ll find something that’s a better fit for your schedule, etc. Don’t feel guilty. Close the loop with the volunteer coordinator (“It turns out my schedule is super busy, I won’t be able to volunteer, I’ll be sure to contact you if my time opens up, wish the organization all the best”) for your own peace of mind and know that you are being far more conscientious than many volunteers.

  16. Michele H.*

    I think that perhaps you are being a little too hard on yourself. You gave it a good shot – -you went through the training, took the tests, paid for what you needed, and gave it your best. When that didn’t work, you tried other ways to volunteer. Things might have worked out differently if you weren’t a college student at the time, and could control your own schedule better. It might not be a bad idea to just concentrate on your final year and then find a good volunteer fit for you after graduation.

    I volunteered at a number of different places in college and beyond, and not all of them made me feel fulfilled. I felt terribly guilty for not wanting to work with certain groups of people, but couldn’t just walk away, so that made me a miserable volunteer. When I was in a position to recruit and coordinate volunteers myself, I finally understood that some people have big hearts and want to help, but having a miserable volunteer can be worse than not having a volunteer at all. But perhaps these ideas can help you:
    1. Ask yourself why you want to volunteer, and be honest! Is it for a career boost? Do you really believe in the cause? Do you have a special talent or skill that an organization would benefit from? Do you want to meet friends with similar interests? Are you new to a city or an area? Did you experience something in your life that makes you feel like you need to reach out to others and share your insights?
    None of these are bad reasons for volunteering at all. But they all help you broaden and define yourself as a volunteer. For example, my mom died of cancer, so I thought I “should” become a hospice volunteer because I saw firsthand that they could use my help. But the thought of seeing terminal cancer patients in their hospital beds at home just gave me too many emotional conflicts. So I “shopped around” for a volunteer position for myself, asking friends where they volunteered, what they did, did they like it, what other tasks were there to do, did I work by myself or with a group? Did I have support as a volunteer?
    I found an AMAZING volunteer position, for ME! Action AIDS. Believe it or not, I ended up working with people who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The difference was, I loved everything about it–the people I worked with, the “clients” we helped, the support and socialization of my team, and I even loved that there was so much for me to do, like stuffing envelopes or making decorations, or packing gift baskets, things I could do that I knew they needed without feeling guilty or miserable that I wasn’t doing the “hard” stuff. After a while, I did all the hard stuff too, I became a team leader, I coordinated events, I raised funds, and I worked with brand new volunteers who felt they “should” volunteer without really asking themselves WHY they want to, and I helped find task after task for miserable volunteers too.
    My advice to you is to think about what you would like to get out of the volunteer experience, and find an organization that can give that to you. It doesn’t matter which one. It doesn’t matter if you want to help women and think you SHOULD be at the Rape Crisis Center. You can still help women at a community garden, or the local YMCA, or ActionAIDS, or the Red Cross, or Meals on Wheels. Surround yourself with the people you want to be with. Get a friend to sign up with you, or sign up for jobs with that team leader who dresses cool or likes art or plays soccer or works in IT like you, whatever. Do the jobs you like – -don’t feel like you have to sign up for everything all at once. The point is, once you make friends, and get in a good routine, and volunteering becomes a normal part of you life and not something you have to trudge off to or make room for, then you will no longer be a miserable volunteer. ANY chore becomes fun, and your co-volunteers and clients will read the joy on your face when they see you. and that is the best reason to volunteer.

  17. TCO*

    OP, as a former volunteer coordinator in social services I want to chime in to confirm that what you did really wasn’t that bad. While we wish all volunteers could follow through on their commitments, we know that’s not realistic and we don’t take it personally when it doesn’t happen.

    What you do need to do is be honest with yourself about the fact that volunteering for this organization isn’t going to work for you now. Aspiration is admirable, but trying and hoping for a fit that just doesn’t exist is more harmful to the organization than being honest and clear about your limitations and walking away.

    I’d suggest that when you have time to start exploring other volunteer opportunities, start with one-day events. That’s a great way to test out your capacity/energy, preferred types of work, and organizations that interest you–and no one expects a long-term commitment. Once you find a good fit you can explore more ongoing opportunities with that organization as your capacity allows.

    1. Liana*

      +1 to the one-day event idea. The rape crisis center in my city does a big walk every year, and I know they’re always looking for volunteers. Maybe OP could try that?

    2. Michele H.*

      That’s a great suggestion, TCO. Doing a one time event will really give you a good insight into that organization too. You can see who some of the team leaders are, and how they treat other volunteers. You can see who else volunteers, like seniors, (who are FANTASTIC volunteers) or SAHMs, or cliquey sorority gals. You can get an idea of how the organization runs (smoothly or a chaotic mess). You can see who participates in the events and if the organization has to struggle for funds, or if they spend their money foolishly. You might even see their offices or HQ and see if they have a big staff or bare bones furnishings. You might not think any of that has anything to do with keeping volunteers happy and motivated, but it really does! I have talked to volunteers who had stopped doing things with their “former” organizations and very few of them “flake out” as they say for reasons that have little to do with them personally, yet they will still feel bad and blame themselves.

    3. Levsha*

      Agreed! I’m also a volunteer coordinator, and if I do get annoyed, it’s not about an instance or two of flakiness, it’s of volunteers chronically not being honest with themselves. Sign up for an event or position and then don’t commit? Not a problem, not even a blip on my radar. But sign up, train, flake, sign up, swear you can do it this time, train, flake, sign up, have a serious conversation with me where I give you multiple outs and you swear you want to do it and then flake again – that is what is frustrating and a waste of the nonprofit’s resources.

      tl;dr you have nothing to beat yourself up about now, but take this lesson to heart and don’t sign up again unless something big changes with your schedule/location/mindset because this just doesn’t sound like the right fit.

  18. MoinMoin*

    Thanks very much for this letter! I don’t think it’s something most people would think to ask for advice on, but it’s probably a common experience. You’ve lifted a weight off my mind today that I don’t think I really even realized I was carrying.

  19. Chriama*

    Hey OP, you did flake out. It kind of sucks, but this thought “I hate the thought that my volunteer work has been more harmful than helpful to this organization” is *absolutely* not true. Don’t let this dissuade you from ever volunteering again or something like that. And I think your guilt over not being able to commit while you were there is making it harder for you to walk away permanently, so I would say that in the future you should be realistic with yourself about what you can commit to. If you sign up for something and it doesn’t work out, it’s totally ok to say “actually I’m not going to be able to volunteer after all.” That’s normal, and I think it will help with your feelings of “they were counting on me and I was just stringing them along.” Clean breaks are the best for that.

  20. Sketchee*

    I feel for the OP in that I often wish I could do more. My mental first draft occasionally starts there. I have to remind myself that hey I did my best, the past is written, and ill make a reasonable plan for the future based on this new information.

    Love the wording of “people have good intentions that for various reasons they don’t always follow through on”. Writing that down in my notes <3

  21. Liana*

    OP, please don’t beat yourself up over this. What Alison said is so true – this happens all the time with volunteers. Not because they’re flaky, or they don’t care about the mission, but because sometimes life happens and volunteer work needs to take a backseat to whatever else is going on. If the volunteer coordinator is at all a reasonable person, they will understand and be compassionate.

    As a sexual assault survivor, helping others going through a similar crisis is monumentally stressful for me. In fact, I specifically avoid volunteer work in that capacity, because it’s so anxiety-inducing that I have a hard time putting my own feelings aside and focusing solely on the victim. It’s just too personal. In addition to that, compassion fatigue is a real thing that people in all sorts of fields experience – if you’re interested in learning more about that, there are quite a few articles on the subject. It may be that this specific type of work isn’t for you, and I don’t mean that in a “you can’t hack it” kind of way, just in a “there are other ways you can do good in the world” way. Your heart is in the right place, and we need people like you in the world – I am 100% positive there is a mission out there that is a right fit for you.

  22. AnotherAnon*

    OP, please don’t feel bad – you didn’t flake, you did a lot of good work for the organization. I have a few thoughts after reading your letter:

    1) Volunteering is awesome, but make sure it fits in with the rest of your priorities – work, school, financial, as well as mental/emotional/physical well-being. Even if you don’t technically have classes or work scheduled in the evening when volunteers are needed at an organization you love, do a cost/benefit analysis of volunteering vs. taking care of other stuff that you might be neglecting (i.e. a good night’s sleep, a workout, quality time with your family/friends, etc.). Don’t feel guilty if you miss out on a volunteer commitment because you decided the best use of your time that evening was to go to bed early, work on a personal project, or catch up with a friend.

    2) Emotionally-charged jobs/volunteer gigs/personal situations – make sure you’re taking care of YOU first, so you’ll have the emotional resilience to deal with the tragic/horrible/senseless/disturbing things you’re encountering. Medidate, keep a journal, practice mindfulness, talk to a therapist/trusted person, so you have ways of calmly centering yourself while you’re in the emotionally-charged scenario and when the experience is over.

  23. Sally-O*

    I, like you, have always been a responsible, loyal, stick-to-it kind of person. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I finally learned the lesson that sometimes quitting is the best option. You can’t do everything, and if a commitment is unduly weighing on you, it’s probably not the right choice for you. With three years of on-and-off volunteering, you can probably still get a great reference. Email the coordinator to officially step down from your volunteer role. They will understand! :)

  24. Oryx*

    Reading these comments makes me feel so much better about flaking on my volunteer gig — I had been volunteering at a special library while my own library FT job was leaving me super frustrated and unfulfilled and I had Fridays off work, which was the perfect time to volunteer. Only then I got a book deal and suddenly needed every available time for that. We would just sign up for shifts based on availability and I….. just stopped signing up. I felt horrible and even now, two years later, I still feel guilty about it.

  25. Anxa*

    Hi OP,

    I’ve flaked out, too!

    Three instances:

    I was volunteering twice a week at a hospital. I’m going to be honest, it was more about me than service. I was unemployed and hoping to get some experience. I had an interview at the place I volunteered and HR hadn’t really read my resume well enough. Volunteer experience was null for the requirements of the main entry level position. I think once I realized that working there for free for a few years still couldn’t help get a foot in a door (and it’s not like people there weren’t rooting for me; the people I worked with directly seemed to really want to work with me), I think I started to mentally pull back from it. I would go through phases of being dedicated to volunteering (as it was the closest thing I had to a job) and then feeling awful every time I had to call out because there was some mass hire event. I called out a lot, and I couldn’t deal with the stress and guilt of calling out anymore. Eventually I left to focus on my job search.

    I did get a flu shot once thinking I”d return again; I hope they don’t think I just used them for that!

    I did care about patients and their families, but I did go through phases of feeling exploited. Not that my supervisors weren’t pretty great, but I did start to resent and feel guilty over the fact that at one point, people may have been paid to do this job. I STILL have my uniform and I”m afraid to go back or use any of those people as a reference, which is silly because it’s perfectly reasonable not to work for free indefinitely.

    I also had an internship that I hung around at after my official end data (it was not a private company). I left for the holiday break, then kind of didn’t get in touch with my supervisor until after the next semester started. I ended up quitting because I didn’t feel like dealing with the logistics of not having card access to the building.

    I was a volunteer in my home state for an emergency response group. I never could find one locally (even though someone was listed on the hospital website as being the director of the program; I think he was just collecting a paycheck and faked the group being active). So when there was a natural disaster at home, I went back, thinking I’d do a lot to help. I ended up working just one shift and spend the rest of the time working on my own family’s recovery.

    Wait, there’s 4!
    I had an infection once on my legs and working around animals and water tanks. I had to take a few weeks off. I never went back. I just always felt out of the loop and like I wasn’t really a valuable contributor. I also never got a uniform t shirt so I always felt like I was kind of the black sheep and felt self-conscious about that.

    Looking back, I think my big issue is that I really hate having to vie for work to do and feeling like I’m in the way or not really a part of the group. It feels silly, but I do need people to make an effort to try to retain me. I think as volunteers (and this seems less of an issue in your case) it’s really easy to feel disconnected from the staff and mission and not to fit it. Sometimes the really small things have a huge influence. The funny thing is that in one case, there were reward banquets and in another free tickets to things and swag bags, but I think little things like working harder on finding better matches for tasks and making volunteers feel like part of the team would have gone further for me. I understand that that may not be an option for a lot of organizations, but that’s how I feel.

    Wow, that was a long post!

    In short, I’ve flaked out on things a lot and then felt terrible about it. And it makes me feel like I have no busy complaining about not having a full-time job, because I keep saying and thinking I just want to be given a chance, and then I get these chances and after a few months or years I lose steam.

    1. KR*

      I totally get it about feeling needed – I’ve volunteered for things that, when I got there, the people acted like I wasn’t needed or that I was in the way or shot down my efforts/ideas. They weren’t trying to be unkind, but when they made me feel like I was redundant or not needed it soured the whole experience. Volunteering isn’t meant to be about the volunteer, but if you don’t treat your volunteers well they won’t want to help.

      1. Chriss Martorelli*

        I totally agree with you. I had the same experience at a cat shelter. Was rarely spoken to, wasn’t given clear instructions. They didn’t act like they cared if I showed up or not. I was hoping for the feeling of camaraderie and appreciation. but was scolded by one worker because I didn’t know what chores I was expected to do. No one took the time to tell me! It sure soured me as well.

  26. Jeanne*

    It’s ok to not volunteer there. You have your studies to prioritize and that doesn’t appear to be the right place for you. Email the coordinator and apologize so that you conscience feels better and then don’t worry about it.

  27. Kalli*

    Yes, let them know you won’t be able to do it after all, because you implied a commitment. “Something’s come up/school’s more demanding/I have to move across the world, so I won’t be able to keep volunteering as I previously indicated.” Keep it to the part where you won’t be volunteering, keep your anxiety out of it, keep your feelings out of it. You can still use it on your resume, but the fact that you haven’t been there in a while probably limits the usefulness of that much more than this.

    No, don’t email them and apologise just to make yourself feel better. That’s your thing; you don’t need to involve other people in that, and make them part of your emotional matrix. It’s still a professional environment although you don’t get paid, and generally, people don’t have to broadcast their private emotional state at work. It’s especially not okay to have to apologise for having one, or involving someone else as your emotional crutch without their knowledge. (This is a personal pet peeve of mine after having being frog-marched around the office, interrupting everyone to say ‘sorry you made me have a panic attack’. Nobody appreciated it and I sure as hell did not feel better, though that was the stated purpose of the event.) It’s normal for them to have people’s availability change and that’s all this is. The rest of it is a thing you can sort out in your own time with space away from them. (I’m not sure that continuing to contact you after you made it clear you weren’t able to continue due the emotional cost and them not having work for you was the best decision on their part, either. It’s a bit like sending the company newsletter to someone who doesn’t work there any more.)

    Also, for all you know, if you bring up anxiety again, or they read it in your email, they’ll be perfectly understanding and tell you they have a social group or free/low-cost counselling for volunteers and draw you back in when you know you don’t want to, but you’ll feel obligated to, because they offered.

    My experience with “flaking” as a volunteer involves the organisation not giving me a new time when I needed to change my times because of school, and then “going to relief” when being routinely sexually assaulted on shift was not viewed as a bad thing. It’s not my fault they never left messages when they called me during work. ;) Oh, and the one time they “lost” my paperwork and I had to start again, and I had to friend the volunteer coordinator with my personal account “to get invited to the local group”.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      routinely sexually assualted on shift? WTF. I hope it was reported to authorities.

      1. Kalli*

        The person in charge (i.e. who it would have been reported to) was the kind of person who came in on his off day especially to hug and kiss female volunteers for their birthday. My direct supervisor would pat me on the bottom to get my attention while I was working with customers, and thought nothing of pulling my hair if I didn’t respond. An older male volunteer would routinely corner me in the volunteer room (and so on).

        The police here won’t take assault or battery cases unless they have witnesses and camera footage, DNA evidence, and it’s reported within ten second. ,Since the person in charge wasn’t handing over footage on himself, and he viewed the bottom-patting and so on as normal since he was that kind of person, the police were worse than useless (worse due to the emotional cost of reporting and how they treat people who report). The best way out for my sanity was just to get out, and it was just an accident that they always called me at work, but if they catch me going there and ask me (it’s a hospital, and I’m a frequent flyer because of chronic illness and workplace PTSD) I just point out that I can’t call them back if they don’t leave a message since their Caller ID is blocked.

        While not much has changed, they now have trouble getting volunteers, so eventually, something will give (fingers crossed).

  28. Alton*

    I was expecting this to be something like the OP just leaving and never showing up again even though they’d been scheduled. I think that sticking around for on-again off-again work for three years(!) and telling the coordinator when the initial assignment wasn’t working well was fairly dilligent.

    OP, don’t beat yourself up. I think the main thing to learn from this is that it’s okay to quit when something isn’t a good fit. II was expecting this to be something like the OP just leaving and never showing up again even though they’d been scheduled. I think that sticking around for on-again off-again work and telling the coordinator when the initial assignment wasn’t working well was fairly dilligent.

    I think the main thing to learn from this is that it’s okay to quit or say no when something isn’t a good fit. It’s common to keep trying and thinking that things will get better if you try harder. But it’s okay to accept that this isn’t the place for you. When you feel tempted to give it another go, remind yourself of how every time you decided to give it a go in the past, it didn’t work. You’ve given it more than a fair try.

    As someone who struggles with anxiety issues, putting off responding to an e-mail and feeling paralyzed as the days turn into weeks is very relatable. It takes practice to overcome that. I agree with Alison that it’s not that big of a deal in this instance, and that the coordinator probably deals with this a lot and isn’t counting on scheduling you or anything. I do think that for your own peace of mind, and to practice dealing with awkward situations like this, it would be a good idea to send her a brief e-mail letting her know that you won’t have the time to continue volunteering after all, and that you’re glad to have had the opportunity to work with them. I don’t think you need to call attention to the fact that you feel bad about how you’ve handled things. A brief, polite message is all that’s needed.

    Since it sounds like the schedule for this volunteer gig was difficult for you to make work with your classes, I’d recommend looking into opportunities that will allow for greater flexibility or fewer hours. You might want to see if a local animal shelter can use someone who can come in for a few hours on Saturday to clean cages or play with the dogs, for example. Other organizations might have opportunities to help with specific events instead of making a regular ongoing commitment.

    You are far from the flakiest person in the volunteer world. I was relieved when a political candidate won in my state because during two separate election years, I’d signed up to help with their campaign but never followed through. The first time, I made a half-hearted agreement to make campaign calls from my own phone, and was given a list of names and numbers. I realized I wasn’t really comfortable cold-calling people, especially from my personal number, and I never did it. It was kind of a disorganized group to begin with, so no one followed up with me or seemed to care much if I’d actually done it. The second time, I agreed to sign up to be contacted for volunteering because people who gave their info got a button. I won’t claim my intentions were pure (I collect buttons, so I really wanted one), but I was genuinely interested in helping out. When I was contacted, though, the prospect of trying to make it to the volunteer center when I was a busy college student with no car seemed daunting, so I said I’d think about it and get back to them (you can probably imagine how that turned out). Even then, I knew I was almost certainly not the only one who’d failed to commit, but I still felt guilty.

  29. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I have flaked, too. So many people have flaked, as you can see here.
    I have to say, could you have chosen anything harder than a rape crisis center? Wow. That is tough, tough work. Please consider that you have done your time in giving back what you could and now it is time to grow and expand other areas of your life and your interests. There is a principle in business that says, knowing when to take a step back is important because this allows others to have an opportunity to contribute. You’ll find similar things with jobs too, where you (more consciously) realize, “This is it for me. I have done all I can here.”

    As far as the emotional component, I think that volunteering like this has a therapeutic value UP TO A POINT, and then after that it is just wearing. This also circles back to the idea of letting someone else have a shot at it and giving up your slot.

    I took paying work where I cared for people (being vague on purpose, sorry) but it made sense at the time. I was used to giving a lot of care in my personal life. It was an easy way to wade into the working world. I burned out beyond belief, because after awhile direct care can stop being therapeutic and start draining us. And symptoms can look like what you say here, where you just failed to answer the email. Since that is not your norm, something else is going on. You have new things that are important to you. Follow these things and see where this new road leads.

    In the future if you still think about the place you can send them a modest donation from time to time. Definitely do not worry about what they think, they know that people come and go for bizillions of reasons. It’s a curious thing that happens, though. When you joined you were just the person they needed. Now someone else has your spot and that someone is just the person they needed. I cannot explain why this happens, I just know it to be true.

  30. BookCocoon*

    This all makes me feel better about my own experience. I volunteered at a shelf reader at my local library about 6 years ago, and I tried to be conscientious about letting the volunteer coordinator know if I wasn’t going to be able to come in for my usual time, but this proved challenging because 1) she didn’t have an e-mail address and 2) whenever I would call the library, the people at the main desk would be like, “The what? Volunteer coordinator? We have one of those? What’s her name?” and would promise to pass on messages but I’m not sure if they did. Since I only came in on the weekends and she was only there during the weekdays when I was far away at work, I would just leave her messages on her desk if needed. Then I came down with mono and didn’t go for a month, and when I started feeling better I came in one day and left her a note that was like, “Sorry for flaking! I had mono! I am better now!” and then got way, way worse and was sick for the next seven months, and after I got better I was so embarrassed about never trying to get in touch with her that I just never went back to volunteering there.

  31. LaurenB*

    Not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES when unemployed, I went through fairly intensive volunteer training, thinking that it would be a great way to use my time and get experience while looking for work. Each time I promptly got a job offer in another province, right after completing all the training. I think I actually did about two hours of useful work total.

  32. Pam Adams*

    Crisis center work is tough. However, there are still things you could do within your limited time. Some thoughts
    – Donate money, if possible. Even $5 or $10 dollars a month can go a long way.
    – You are a college student. Is there a campus women’s center you can volunteer with? I did that, but focused my energies on working with re-entering students, rather than crisis work.
    -Can you put up fliers on the campus for the center? Putting the information out there will help anyone who doesn’t know who to call.
    -Continue to be(as I’m sure you are) a strong advocate against rape. Keep some of the hotline cards with you, in case someone needs one.

    Good luck,

  33. LucyVP*

    I work for a non-profit with a big active volunteer program (currently almost 400 registered volunteers and about 200 ‘active’ volunteers, meaning they work at least 2 shifts a month). Some of our volunteer roles are very highly skilled and have a lot of training involved. Our staff Volunteer Coordinator is just about the nicest person alive and so understanding when volunteers need to pull back from their commitment to us. As everyone said, this is so normal. There are really only two things that annoy her.

    1) not showing up after you committed to a specific shift.
    2) expecting the privileges of being a volunteer without doing the work. our volunteers get access to our programs and events, sometimes for free and sometimes at a discount.
    ‘Volunteers’ who have not worked a shift in a year, but then call to make a reservation to attend an event and want their volunteer discount. . . . super annoying!

    Basically, flaky volunteers are so normal for organizations like this, you have to really be obnoxious to even be on the radar as a ‘problem volunteer.’

  34. Adam*

    In a similar vein: it’s ok to acknowledge when a volunteer gig is no longer working for you. I stopped a regular volunteer shift I had at an animal shelter that I had done consistently for two straight years. I’d had a lot of fun doing it, but the work had become very routine, boring, and energy draining. Plus, all the people I enjoyed working with had moved to other shifts since it was better for their schedules or left entirely for new ventures, so I had pretty much no one to talk to.

    It took me a little while to decide that I was done as this was a hard shift for the organization to find volunteers for, but eventually I admitted that it just wasn’t fun anymore and it was time to move on. They were nothing but thankful and I know they got along fine without me.

  35. J Plummer*

    At the risk of violating the commenting guidelines, I thought the OP was overthinking this by a mile and possibly has some unresolved abuse issues that are causing the over-thinking, the hyper-responsibility, the need for approval/permission from others. A lot of people volunteer at crisis centers as a way of healing themselves without having to do the “work.” It rarely works. Just saying, that might be possibility here. I have also been a volunteer coordinator and loved and learned a lot from the volunteers I met. The best aren’t volunteering because they want to feel good about themselves, pad a resume or deal with their demons. They volunteer because they want to be of service. That idea seems to have gotten lost here.

  36. Dust Bunny*

    I have to think that your reasons for not following through were pretty valid, too: Being at the mercy of public transport late at night; affecting your mental health; affecting your grades.

  37. VolunteercoordinatorinNOVA*

    Like Allison said, I would say 99% of volunteer coordinators deal with this all the time and it’s just part of the job. Any good VC knows that people are really busy and sometimes things fit in better than other times. I don’t want my volunteers to feel stressed out about volunteering as it doesn’t lead to a good experience for anyone. I do appreciate when people email to give me a heads up to let me know that right now their schedule is too busy or they just can’t commit because than I can cross them off my list for whatever I need to contact them about (sometimes temporarily and sometimes forever) as I don’t want to feel like I’m bothering/annoying them with constant emails/requests.

  38. Kobayashi*

    I lead a volunteer-based nonprofit and I’m just here to concur with Allison. Don’t feel guilty. I’d say it’s less than a 50% rate from the folks who sign up (probably closer to that if there’s a lot of training-investment and hoops to jump through). A note would be nice, so the volunteer coordinator doesn’t keep wasting her time to reach out, etc. It’s always helpful to know why people stop volunteering (transportation issues, emotional toll, etc.) just in case there’s something the organization can do to alleviate some of that, but all in all — stop volunteering if this is something you dread. Organizations don’t want volunteers who don’t really want to be there. You put in a decent amount of time, on and off. You’re not obligated to stay forever!

  39. Alice*

    I’m a bit late to this but you didn’t shirk anything. You realised you weren’t able to help people in crisis. When you feel like that, stopping is the right thing to do.

    I do think you could have been better supported eg with supervision (by which I mean a particular kind of debriefing and support used in therapeutic professions, I don’t mean having someone watch you work) which is really essential for anyone doing this kind of work.

    You’re human. You realised this wasn’t right for you. That’s totally okay. People in any kind of caring role NEED to take care of themselves first, recognise when they can’t cope and prioritise their own wellbeing and fitness, or not, to do the work.

  40. Volunteer Enforcer*

    OP, I hope you have made your peace with this. I have worked on the other side before (Volunteer Department equivalent to a HR Administrator), got this kind of situation a lot and thought nothing of it. In fact, it’s better if a volunteer is upfront about it not being possible to volunteer earlier on.

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